Northern Ireland (Prison Management)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 4th March 1992.

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Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 3:31 pm, 4th March 1992

With permission, I should like to make a statement on Lord Colville's report on the management of paramilitary prisoners in Belfast prison. Before dealing with the substance of his report, which is published today, I should like to express my thanks to my noble Friend Lord Colville for the thoroughness and speed with which he carried out a very difficult task.

The House will recall the tragic events which gave rise to his review. On 24 November last a device exploded in the dining hall in C wing in Belfast prison. One prisoner was killed outright, another mortally wounded, and several others less seriously injured. The efforts of staff in rendering first aid immediately after the explosion were in the highest traditions of the Northern Ireland prison service and earned the thanks of the relatives of the prisoners who died. On 26 November the Provisional IRA admitted responsibility for the outrage.

Three inquiries were established: a murder investigation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which continues; and an internal and necessarily confidential review of security procedures in the prison by a senior official of the prison service. Most of its recommendations have been implemented and decisions on the others will be made shortly. The third strand was Lord Colville's inquiry into the operational policy for the management of prisoners of opposing factions in Belfast prison.

The central conclusion of his report is strongly against further segregation within the prison system. It also recommends: that, in Belfast prison, numbers in A wing, the only wing at present housing exclusively paramilitary prisoners, should be reduced; that, out of concern for visitors' safety, those prisoners should have separate visiting arrangements; and that time on remand in custody awaiting trial should be reduced, his preferred method being that the powers in section 8 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 should be used.

I accept the report. I shall comment on each of the recommendations in turn. First, the question of segregation. Lord Colville brings out very clearly the increased risks posed to security by segregation. He says: All the lessons from history suggest that segregation facilitates escapes, and escapes will give freedom to paramilitary fanatics, of both factions, who will kill and maim outside prison. On security grounds 1 am satisfied that Lord Colville's recommendation is right.

Moreover, I am also satisfied that segregation would make it more difficult to offer constructive regimes for inmates, as it already has at the Maze. It would constrain the flexible and effective use of the available accommodation. The opportunity which segregation would provide the paramilitaries to reinforce their cohesiveness within the prison would have an adverse effect on the morale and self-esteem of staff.

I turn now to the reduction of numbers in A wing. There are obvious advantages in keeping untried prisoners together in a more central location. I am pleased to tell the House that the governor can implement this recommendation within the next few weeks, when the necessary construction work will have been completed, without the need to move those prisoners out of Belfast prison.

The recommendation on separate visits is not free from difficulty, but Lord Colville believes that the change is justified in the interests of the safety of visitors, and I have concluded that it should for that reason be accepted.

The case for cutting down remand times has always been strong. Lord Colville concludes that it is now unanswerable and I accept that conclusion. Delays in these cases are, of course, inextricably linked to the terrorist situation, which gravely complicates the investigation of crime and the criminal process as a whole. But it is not acceptable that people should remain for long periods without a trial. Together with my ministerial colleagues, I am urgently considering how the very real problems which exist might best be resolved so that those unacceptable delays can be overcome.

Segregation remains a key objective of the paramilitaries. In resisting campaigns by both factions, prison governors and their staff have implemented the policy of successive Administrations. There now have been three major reports by respected and independent figures which say that segregation is wrong. Lord Gardiner, in his report published in January 1975 on measures to deal with terrorism, recommended that special category status—segregation writ large—should be ended and that the influence of the terrorist leaders must be reduced. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir James Hennessy, in his 1984 report into the Maze escape of the previous year was in no doubt about the increased threat to security posed by segregation. Lord Colville, having taken evidence from a wide range of people, has come to the same conclusion.

My predecessors accepted the recommendations of Gardiner and Hennessy and I, in turn, have concluded that I should accept the recommendations of Lord Colville. I do not believe that it would be acceptable to this House for the clear stand which has been taken over the years against segregation to be set aside as a result of paramilitary violence and in the face of unequivocal advice from three such distinguished sources and the powerful arguments that they have deployed.

The bomb explosion in C wing in Belfast was an act of terrorism no different from the murder of workmen at Teebane or the killing of people who happened to be in a betting shop at the wrong time. None of those events will deflect the Government from what they believe to be in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.